By Michael Collier
Lance Armstrong appears more circumspect than combative as director Alex Gibney talks to the athlete about his dramatic rise and speedy fall in “The Armstrong Lie,” a documentary film that opened recently in selected theaters.
In January, Armstrong tried to come clean with Oprah Winfrey when he admitted to doping throughout his career but said he was only one of many professional cyclists who used performance enhancing drugs.
Now, more than a year after the International Cycling Union formally stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories, comes the film and a new book, “Wheelmen,” by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, which digs deeper into the saga.
While many people may have written off Armstrong as a cheater, which he has acknowledged, his ability to constantly spin his own story through lows and highs — from cancer victim to cancer survivor, from his 2009 comeback to his lifetime banishment — is hard to resist.
It certainly was for Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2007 documentary about U.S. torture practices. He set out in 2009 to make a film about Armstrong’s comeback. Gibney acknowledges in the film that during the cyclist’s training and performance in Le Tour that year that he was rooting for the champ, who said he was riding clean.
Armstrong secured a third-place spot on the podium after fending off Bradley Wiggins on a difficult late-stage climb up Mont Ventoux. Then the sky began to fall.
In its case against Armstrong in October 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said an analysis of his blood tests from 2008-2011 showed evidence of transfusions that would have boosted his performance in the 2009 Tour. In the movie, Armstrong disputes the claim.
For viewers who haven’t read everything about Armstrong’s life, there are some gems in the film, including:
— Armstrong’s insistence in 2009 that Frankie Andreu, a former Postal teammate who three years earlier had admitted to doping and who was covering the event for TV, be the only reporter to interview him after stages of the race. The awkwardness between the two was palpable.
— The Postal team’s decision to stop its bus on the side of a road late in the 2004 Tour, feigning a mechanical problem with the bus. Cones were placed outside the bus while inside the team members received transfusions of their own oxygen-rich blood that had been delivered by motorcycle.
It’s hard to know how much box office mojo “The Armstrong Lie” will get. There were only a half-dozen viewers when I saw the film in Berkeley on a Monday afternoon. But for anyone who is hooked into the story, it’s hard to resist the price of admission.